Press Release

March 19, 2012

The Obama Administration’s “reset” with Russia has muffled concerns over human rights and democracy and dwelled on business palatable to the Kremlin like nuclear proliferation and trade. The Senate now has an opportunity to restore balance to this relationship.

Days after Vladimir Putin won another manipulated election, President Obama responded by calling for the Senate to repeal the 1974 JacksonVanik amendment, which links trade access to Moscow’s treatment of its citizens. The dispute in Washington isn’t whether JacksonVanik should stay in place, but what should follow.

With Russia set to join the World Trade Organization this summer, American companies would be hurt by JacksonVanik, which blocks the U.S. from granting normal trading status. Under WTO rules, Russia could adopt retaliatory tariffs. Even Russian opposition leaders consider JacksonVanik a “relic,” as Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov wrote in these pages Thursday. They support its repeal. As do we.

The problem is that the White House doesn’t want anything else put in its place to hold the Kremlin to account for human-rights abuses. Some senior Senators disagree, and they support a worthy successor to JacksonVanik.

Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin has championed a bill named after Sergei Magnitsky, a corruption whistle-blower who died in Russian police custody in 2009. The legislation freezes the assets of Russian officials implicated in human-rights abuses and bans them from the U.S.

For two years, the White House has scuttled the Magnitsky bill. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, who dreams of the top job at Foggy Bottom in a second Obama term, refuses to hold hearings. Mike McFaul, the new ambassador to Russia, last week called it “redundant” because the State Department put some Russian officials on a visa black list last year. He didn’t mention that it only did so in response to Senate pressure and in an effort to pre-empt Senate action. Nor did he say that, unlike the Magnitsky bill, State didn’t publicly name names or ban them from using the U.S. banking system.

This position is no longer politically tenable. The Senate looks unlikely to retire JacksonVanik without adopting the Magnitsky bill. On Friday, Senator Cardin, Republicans John McCain and Roger Wicker and independent Joe Lieberman made this quid pro quo explicit.

Mr. Cardin’s participation is noteworthy coming from a loyal Democrat. So is the promise by Mr. McCain to support JacksonVanik repeal as long as the Magnitsky law gets thrown into the bargain. Mr. McCain may bring along Republicans who currently want to keep JacksonVanik, which the Administration still lacks votes to repeal.

The White House reluctance to sanction Russian human-rights abusers speaks to a bigger clash over foreign policy visions. Seeing itself as an heir to the “realist” school, the Obama Administration extends a hand to dictators and plays down talk of democracy and human rights. In its view, a waning global power like America can’t afford to annoy authoritarian regimes this way.

But an American voice on behalf of the powerless is part of a long, bipartisan tradition. We’re glad some Senators think it’s worth preserving.